Council debates roadside begging rules

Nov. 08, 2013 @ 08:14 AM

City Council members are willing to consider further changes to the city’s rules on roadside begging, but don’t necessarily agree on what sort of solicitation tactics they might allow.

The key issue is how to modify an ordinance that at the start of the year restricted solicitors to the sidewalk.
Durham’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee has recommended a loosening of that restriction that administrators and city lawyers say could allow solicitors to cross a road’s travel lanes to approach a car.
There were as many opinions about that as there were council members in the room for Thursday’s work session, with Councilman Don Moffitt firmest in saying he wouldn’t want to allow it.
“When I think of this ordinance, I think of high school students advertising car washes,” he said, noting the rules cover more than begging. “It changes for me what we’re considering. And I don’t want high school students or panhandlers or bucket brigades in the travel lanes. Putting people in the same places as 3,000-pound automobiles moving at speed is just not the right thing to do.”
Councilwoman Diane Catotti likewise said she doesn’t think “people should be allowed to approach a driver on the driver’s side” of a car or truck.
But Councilman Steve Schewel favored granting “the ability to approach from the driver’s side,” while retaining existing prohibitions on soliciting along interstate on-ramps and from highway medians.
Mayor Bill Bell was concerned mainly about barring what he termed “aggressive” solicitations. Absent invitation from its occupants, “don’t come [to] the car, stick your hand in and ask for something,” he said.
He added that he’d “sort of gone along with” the clampdown the council initiated on solicitations at the start of 2013 and hadn’t seen it as a priority issue.
Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden focused less on how solicitors interact with traffic than about the possibility of begging near homes. And Councilman Eugene Brown plainly thought officials had gotten the issue right when they discussed it last winter.
“I don’t know how many of you have received thank-yous from Durham citizens for the action we took last December, but it’s really quite a few people,” Brown said. “And it will be shock-and-awe time to a lot of the members of the Durham community to go back to where we were.”
The existing rules, however, have drawn criticism from several ministers and defense lawyers.
They say the early-year change took from solicitors many of the most lucrative spots for seeking donations, and subjected them to criminal-law penalties.
Officials have moved to blunt one of those objections by setting up a monthly “community life court” that would focus more on linking panhandlers with social services than on penalizing them.
But the location issue remains. The winter rules change effectively barred soliciting in places like the U.S. 15-501/Interstate 40 and Fayetteville Road/I-40 interchange where it was once routine.
Schewel said he’s in favor of loosening the rules somewhat because there remain some people who, for reasons of disability, mental illness or other issues, can’t find a complete solution to their troubles from social services.
“Helping people move to a better place in life is absolutely right and essential” but there are a few people who support themselves through begging that local agencies don’t have answers for, he said.
But Cole-McFadden and Brown were decidedly of the opinion that officials and advocates should be steering solicitors to services, “from this point to a better point in life,” as Cole-McFadden put it.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said administrators and city lawyers will ponder the council’s advice and suggest revisions to the ordinance. “It may not be perfect, but we’ll bring something back,” he promised.